Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Wakehurst" The Van Alen Estate, Newport

When the beautiful Emily Astor Van Alen, daughter of Caroline Astor, died in child birth, her husband James J. Van Alen, went into deep deep mourning, from which he never fully recovered. To help his son get over the loss of Emily's death, James H. Van Alen gave his son a large plot of land on his property, in Newport RI, and told him to build whatever type of house he wanted to. The Van Alen family was one of the most prestigious families in the country, and held a high place in society. Not only did the Van Alens have pedigree, they had a fortune too. Their fortune came principally came from railroads and the family's major banking investments, as well as their numerous real estate holdings. The Van Alens had long been associated with Newport, James H. occupied a cottage called "The Grange" on Ochre Point Avenue, so it was not unusual that James J. wanted to build a home in Newport.
James J. Was Known As "The American Prince Of Wales" And Was Considered A Ladies' Man

James J. Van Alen, was a colorful character, whose exploits were often reported to the press. While his father was a general, it was said by his grandson, William, that James J. had been a drummer boy in the Civil War. Having survived this adventure, James J. became known for his physical prowess. When in Newport, he daily swam the three-quarters of a mile from the mainland to Gooseberry Island. Even at age 62 he was still able to tackle the 2 mile distance between Bailey's Beach and the Gooseberry Island Club, arriving there a bit winded but ready for lunch. James J. also enjoyed hunting deer at his English estate "Rushton Hall" and wild game in South Africa.

"Rushton Hall" Van Alen's Estate In Northhamptonshire, England, Was The Scene Of Numerous     Hunting Parties Van Alen Hosted In The Fall Seasons

Perhaps James J.'s greatest strength was his connoisseur's eye he developed over the years and the magnificent collection of decorative arts and fine pieces he assembled throughout his life. It was this eye coupled with the Van Alen millions which enabled him to create a remarkable residence such as "Wakehurst". James J. turned to architect Dudley Newton to design and build "Wakehurst" and within 3 years of construction, "Wakehurst" was ready for occupation. The Total cost for the house, $750,000.

James J. Immediately Opened The House With A Large Ball In Honor Of His Son's Marriage

The Plans of "Wakehurst" were designed for comfort and elegance. The primary purposes of the rooms were to house Van Alen's large collection. The rooms were separated by the long entrance hall and divided into two wings.

The house may have been completed, but work was still going on at "Wakehurst". Those workers were  under the command of Frederick Olmstead and were working on turning "Wakehurst"'s large lot into beautiful expansive gardens.

                 The Gardens Were Topiary Playgrounds For Van Alen Who Loved Gardening

Van Alen also wanted a large terrace so he could see his beautiful flowers when it was hot outside. It would be accessed off of the dining room and the library. The terrace also served to augment the square footage of the public rooms of the house for large social functions.

    The Terrace Was A Favorite Family Escape From The Somewhat Stuffy Interiors Of "Wakehurst"

The ground floor of "Wakehurst" held the principal entertaining rooms: the dining room, library, den or smoking room and the ballroom. Unlike most homes built by millionaires, there was no art gallery. Van Alen chose to display his art collection in numerous rooms where they fitted instead of devote an entire space to housing art work (although he did chose the ballroom to house his collection of paintings of his ancestors).

 The Hall Was Where Van Alen Greeted His Guests And Later The Scene Of Daisy's Cocktail Parties

                        The Stair Hall Featured A Beautiful Stained-Glass Window By Kempe

              The Dining Room Had Beautiful Coffered Ceilings With Niches Filled With Stucco

                   The Library Chandelier Originally Graced The Dining Room At "The Grange"

                                           The Den Was Van Alen's Favorite Room

  The Ballroom Was The Largest Room In The House And Was Sort Of A Van Alen Family Gallery

Upstairs "Wakehurst"'s Bedrooms were designed in a number of styles, such as oak, yellow, paneled and blue.

                                The Stair Hall Leading Upstairs Was Decorated With Portraits

                              "Wakehurst"'s Bedrooms Were Considered Stuffy And Cluttered

Van Alen loved "Wakehurst" and lived there as well as at "Rushton Hall". On his death in 1923 "Wakehurst", along with $26 million passed, passed to his son James L. and his wife Margaret "Daisy" Post Van Alen.

Daisy Thought Nothing Of Having Her Private Jet Fly Her To New York City For A Day Of Shopping And Then Fly Her Back In The Evening In Time For A Dinner Party

Daisy and James lived regal lives at "Wakehurst" and their New York City townhouse on Fifth Avenue . Upon James's death "Wakehurst" was inherited by Daisy along with some $10 million. This combined with her Post millions and her $10 million legacy from her uncle Frederick Vanderbilt, allowed Daisy to live very lavishly at "Wakehurst", spending up to $85,000 one year on shopping expenses alone.

Mrs. Van Alen Never Worried About Money And Once Took Out Of her Purse $50,000 And Gave It To Her Son.

Daisy lived regally at "Wakehurst" during the social season, hosting a seres of dinner parties, balls, musicales and garden parties. She spent annually almost $100,000 employing her staff of 37 at "Wakehurst" which included 4 footmen, 10 maids, the butler, housekeeper, chef, 2 assistant chefs, 4 under chefs, scullery maid, the chauffeur, her lady's maid, her son's valet, her daughter's lady's maid and several gardeners.

Daisy Paid Her Chef Almost $10,000 A Year, One Of The Highest Paid Servants In Newport
Sadly, with the cold World Wars and the brand new Income Tax law, most Newport couldn't afford to live in $11 million cottages(Alva Belmont), let alone pay to upkeep these cottages. While most cottagers were calling it quits, Daisy and a few other continued to reside in their cottages. With taxes pushing $75,000, Daisy decided to sell her new York City residence. Mrs. Van Alen had, like many other cottagers, moved permanently to Newport many years ago with the invasion of commercial development, but continued to keep their New York townhouses. Now those people were being forced to sell their townhouses, with the exception of the few extremely wealthy (Mrs. William Watts Sherman, Mrs. Charles B. Alexander and Mrs. Codman).

Mrs. Van Alen In Old Age, Photographed In The Entrance Hall

By the 1950's cottagers were also selling their Newport homes and downsizing. Robert Goelet had to donate "Ochre Court" because he couldn't sell it and downsized to a smaller cottage called "Champ Soleil", while Alva Belmont had been forced to sell "Marble House" to Frederick Prince because at last all of her Belmont and Vanderbilt millions had run out. Daisy, who by then maintained that "Wakehurst is the last home in Newport to be properly run", continued to remain at "Wakehurst" in regal splendor. Well into the 1960's she continued to maintain a staff of 26 people to run "Wakehurst". On her death in 1960, her will revealed that of the $32 million she had been left by her husbands, family and uncle, only $15 million remained. Son William received close to $4 million (in addition to the $4 million he had been left by his father and the $5 million he had received from Frederick Vanderbilt), daughter Louise also inherited close to $4 million (in addition to the $2 million she had been left by her father, she had not been left anything by Frederick Vanderbilt because it was said that her numerous marriages annoyed him), son Jimmy close to $4 million as well (in addition to $3 million from his father and some $5 million from Frederick Vanderbilt)  she left some $1 million to various charities, almost $300,000 in gifts to her servants at "Wakehurst" and almost $1 million to the Republican Party.

William Had Inherited Some $13 Million From His Family
Daisy had left "Wakehurst" to be shared amongst her children, although Jimmy preferred his other Newport estate "Avalon" instead of "Wakehurst" and gave up his share and Louise moved to an apartment in Paris and gave up her share as well. With taxes rising to almost $75,000 a year, William cut the staff to a skeleton crew of 9 people and sold the families numerous real estate holdings and banking interests. William also sold several large plots of land on "Wakehurst"'s estate and silently sold many pieces of the family's large art collection. Finally he gave up and decided to move to a smaller estate. He bought for $25,000 "Seafair" cottage and moved there with a few selected pieces of family artwork and the remaining 9 people working for "Wakehurst".

 "Seafair" Estate, Was The Scene Of Numerous Hurricanes
"Wakehurst" was sold to the Salve Regina University for $200,00, who stripped it of it's contents and turned it into a library. Today it is still owned by the Salve Regina who keeps it in perfect condition.


  1. Hi, just wanted to mention something about the Wakehurst dining room. I'm a student at Salve Regina University, majoring in Cultural and Historic Preservation, and I always admired the architectural details of the room. Upon doing further investigation of the materials used in the dining room I discovered that the ceilings are made of beautiful hand-carved plaster (not stucco), and that just below the ceiling line and just above the wooden wainscoting (where there seem to be many small murals), is actually a painted leather which still remains on the walls today! Love your blog!

  2. Salve never used Wakehurst as a library. Perhaps you are confused because the current library at Salve was built on the Wakehurst property. After purchasing Wakehurst it was left empty and locked up for years after before they began to use it. Its initial use was to house the first 3 male students in the basement. It then served as classrooms, offices, and a female dorm. Today it is used as a student center, class space and faculty offices.

  3. There were no private jets in 1960. This makes me question some of the other facts presented in this article. I did enjoy it overall.

  4. private planes were very much in use, Just not jet engines, they just used the wrong terminology.

  5. The gardens were designed and laid out by Ernest W. Bowditch and his office, not Olmsted.


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